Learning to be a Widow

When all was overturned into widowhood, my entire world collapsed on itself. Everything fell through. My husband David and I had been everything to each other. He had been my best friend, my coach, my critic, my fan, my adversary, and my accountant and chauffeur. The hole that had been David was so deep I could not see the bottom of it. Where do I find people to fill those jobs? How was I going to manage finances and the legal documents? Straightaway, I had to get cash in our checking account to pay for the 24/7 nurses. Thank-you notes in longhand?

We had been a team for forty-eight years, and suddenly I had the jobs of both of us as well as the jobs of the team. I had to learn about things that David had been responsible for – he knew about stocks and bonds, he knew about sports, about business. If anything happened in those spheres, he would tell me. Now I had to know everything. These practical problems distracted me for a while and made me feel momentarily competent. But after struggling with them, I had to face the real issue.

The most important question was/is “who am I without David?” I did not know if I could survive, if I could ever again feel secure. I still doubt if I can ever again be carefree, impish. Where is my backboard? As David said in one of our conversations, “what you will need is… Me.” So, what do I do without “Me.” Suddenly, I was forced to define myself as a separate person, without any formal primary relationship or connection. After forty-eight years in a very intense marriage, who am I? I had to start from scratch, collecting twigs and branches of my various lives to put together a coherent person.

I had lived successfully alone in downtown Chicago. I first thought that I would revert to my single life. I felt single for a week or so, but single no longer worked. I no longer had that network, and I was too exhausted by David’s very long and difficult death to bounce back, to regroup.

I gradually learned that in a world made up of singles and couples, there is no world for widows. The singles have their own networks and a widow is like an uninvited guest. And couples are not eager to accept widows. They definitely do not want to be reminded they could also be widowed. The grieving widow keeps people to away like a neon sign – who knows what she might want, or need. She carries the scent of grief. How often do you invite a new widow to a black-tie dinner? Or lunch?

The most surprising thing for me was the lack of support from other widows. In the retirement home I was living in, fifty percent or more were widowed. I expected, and so did David, that they would be a support system. But, no one wanted to talk about it. We had, for example, made friends with a five-year widow before David’s deadly diagnosis, but after he told her about his approaching death, she would not talk to either of us. She avoided us. I can understand this, in part, no one wanted to be reminded of their own widowhood. Widows and divorcees that I know have created their own networks; the people they knew as couples are no longer part of their social life. Yes, I needed to set up my own social network, but that takes time. Widows are usually short of time.

In a relatively short time, I realized the horrible truth: I was no longer the most important person in the world to anyone. I had friends, of course, but in a triage situation, I am at the very bottom of the heap. Suddenly, I alone am responsible for my life… and my death. When I’m sick and don’t know what to do, I have to figure it out. I need to call someone, but who? I need to always have options, each one backed up by four others. And while I’m trying to build a new life, riding up the elevator, I have to face my own inevitable ride down: aging, dependency, and death. David died in a good place for him, but not for me. So I’m faced with the question: where do I want to die?. What are my options?

David often asked me, “where will you go when I am dead?” I usually said something like, “I’m too exhausted to even think about it.” After he died, I stayed in the retirement home for the next year. He had died there, and I wanted to be there for the first death date. Then I left to visit more familiar territory with good memories. Familiar territory, of course, had changed in the five years I was gone. Even the geography had changed. More important, relationships had changed; people had moved, died, and some simply didn’t want to deal with a widow.

With help from other widows, I am working at creating a widow trail, starting from scratch, creating our own widow network. The biggest difficulty is that most widows do not want to talk about their experience, don’t want to admit that anything has happened; they deny that widowhood has radically changed their life. This is, in part, societal. Widows are not valued as an important and indigenous segment of our population. Our culture doesn’t know how much it needs us, how much it is crying out for our unique experiences and skills.

We need to speak up. Instead of Gay Pride, we could have Widow Pride if, that is, enough of us are able to walk in the protest march.